Towards a World Class Education

September 30, 2013

Towards a World Class Education

by Dr. Farish Noor

dr-farish-m-noor1THAT those in the corridors of power now recognise the urgent need to restore the standing and prestige of our national institutions of higher learning is a timely development indeed and even more urgent is the need to take some pragmatic and practical steps in the right direction.

Malaysia, with an emerging youth sector that will soon be demanding access to higher education as a means of attaining upward social mobility, cannot take higher education for granted, and in time to come, may also realise that an improved higher education system would also add to the country’s pull factor if and when Malaysia is seen as a destination for foreign scholars as well.

However, as has been noted by myself and many other academicians, the major stumbling block Malaysia faces at the moment is the lack of access to the global academic arena and the relatively low profile that our institutions have in relation to better-known universities and colleges in the developed Western world.

That it has come to this is a sad reflection of how our standing has fallen ofum-logo late, though it was not always the case: Universiti Malaya was once regarded as among the best universities in Asia, and among its alumni are many academics, technocrats, businessmen and leaders of other countries in Asia today.

It has been argued by some that one factor that may have contributed to our relative decline was and is the phenomena of linguistic nationalism that ultimately led to the shift to Bahasa Malaysia, perhaps at the cost of English.

Though this shift did not necessarily erode the standard of teaching and knowledge production in our institutions of knowledge, it did mean that fewer and fewer academics and students outside Malaysia were able to access, and appreciate, whatever developments and discoveries were being made in our universities.

Education BlueprintExpensive Education Blueprint

The pressing question at the moment is this: how can we raise the profile of Malaysia’s universities in as quick a period as possible, without compromising standards of teaching, knowledge production and academic integrity?

There are no simple answers to the question here, for the matter at hand extends beyond mere epistemic concerns and spill over into the domain of the political as well.

Yet political decisions can be made if there is enough political will and mettle to address the realities of the day. The linguistic-nationalists among us may balk at the idea that English is the dominant language in global academic circles at the moment, but that is the reality one has to swallow.

If they are dismayed by the sad realities of the age we live in, they might find comfort among French, German, Japanese and other academics who likewise have come to accept the fact that the world does not speak those languages.

Pragmatism has to be the order of the day here, and I have witnessed first-hand how practical steps can be taken to resolve the question of how to raise the profile of a country’s education sector.

During my last years as an academic in Germany, I noted that even Germany’s hallowed halls of learning have come to accept the necessity of making room for English: Berlin’s Graduate School project was aimed at luring non-German students to pursue their higher studies in the country and it was a school where the mode of instruction was in English.

Prior to that, the biggest problem faced by foreign students in Germany (where education costs are surprisingly reasonable, even relatively cheap by comparison) was the need to take a two or three-year course in academic German.

Then we have the Indonesian model next door to consider as well. Indonesia happens to have a large, lively and, I would argue, exceptionally well-appointed higher education sector.

Its universities are among the most diverse and progressive I have ever taught and researched in, but again the major drawback is that almost all of the courses offered are in Bahasa Indonesia — which is a negative push factor if you happen to be a prospective student from India, China or elsewhere.

Of late, however, efforts have been made to improve the standard of English in universities. The Indonesian government has earmarked a number of university journals — ranked as the best in the country — for special consideration and has made it necessary for them to publish in English. (I know this to be true as I happen to sit on one of the editorial boards.)

Compelling Indonesian scholars to write and publish in English also means that the journals would have editorial boards made up of foreign academics, raising the standard of peer review and thus raising its standing among other journals as well.

Thus, after decades of linguistic nationalism, Indonesia’s universities are now slowly but surely making their entry into the arena of international academia, which is highly competitive.

This was another example of how simple decisions may have long-lasting and even permanent consequences, for the better.

Malaysia’s case is, of course, particular to itself, but the ever-competitive nature of higher education today means that whatever reforms that need to be made have to be made soon and with a degree of political will and conviction.

Here, one hopes that the leaders who take such steps will have the grit and wherewithal to bite the bullet when necessary, even at the risk of appearing unpopular in the short run. But whatever decisions Malaysia may take in the near future, the fact is that the world is not about to slow down for Malaysia to catch up.

Higher education serves many other purposes than simply the acquisition of knowledge and skills, for it also secures the mobility and competitiveness of nations. If even powerful economies like Germany can and have adapted to the realities on the ground, surely Malaysia must rise to the challenge, too.

23 thoughts on “Towards a World Class Education

  1. “THAT those in the corridors of power now recognise the urgent need to restore the standing and prestige of our national institutions of higher learning is a timely development indeed and even more urgent is the need to take some pragmatic and practical steps in the right direction.” – Dr Farish Noor

    Goodness, this doctor must be living in another planet. What evidence is that that our beloved PM and our esteemed education minister and the whole bunch of federal leaders are actually interested in educating the young people of Malaysia? Pray, show me! Just a tiny bit will do.

    I do not know whether to laugh or feel insulted by this doctor’s writings.

  2. Like it or not English is the international language of knowledge. The pursuit of linguistic nationalism with the shift to BM should not be at the expense of knowledge acquisition especially in the areas of science & technology.

  3. My toes learn to laugh upon reading this article. Blue print sini, sana, mana-mana; tapi just stay as blueprint like many other bp since 1985 when EPU invited proposal from world class consultants of how to make Msia top tire producer in the world. That time the budget was 1m rgt. this one was priced at 20m rgt.

    All it take is POLITICAL will to implement and that is the ingredient our G had always lacked.

    When MSA broke up. Sg invited a WClass consultant to tell how it can be the regional’s top airline and had the political will to walk the print and WOW….20 years on SQ achieve that and stayed above till today……….while MAS share is now 30sen? How great we are to stay at the bottom so fast.

    Now education blue print…haha…….the top accounting college now is Sunway’s ICAEW and ACCA program………producing world class prize winners. Just check how many of our 5RU univ accounting program has practicing professional accountants instead of text book ones, and likewise with the rest of professional programs these 5RU are conducting.

    If we want world class, then we must be competitive world class. Can it be when our academia can’t even string a sentence properly least to mention a paragraph.

    The blueprint is supposed to show the elephant in the room or was it a mirage?

    Let’s get real man ! We have screwed out youth. Blame who? If not the politicians, then who? If we are so good why then do politicians sent the children abroad even for secondary schooling. They don’t trust our system, so how can they tell rayat to trust them?

    Now can you see why my toes are laughing ?

  4. I felt that Singapore system is the best. In fact, Sabah & Sarawak at the beginning maintained & still maintain that english is an official language. We can always follow the Canadian way. Have dual official language

  5. So what do we do with the “lost generation” that were forced to study in BM and now sitting in top civil service position? Haven’t we learn a bitter lesson? Now we are trying to play catch up when 30 years ago we were in front position. I’m always reminded about the picture of a team of Alaskan huskies with the caption, “if you are not at the front, the view will always be the same” it’s always the same view of someone’s rear.
    What Malaysia needs is a drastic change in the Education policy. Stop messing around with the so called “education blueprint” . Remember the old saying don’t fix it it’s ain’t broken. Anyway this is the age of technology and “blueprint” are no longer in use. Buildings and airplanes are designed on computers, no longer blueprint.

  6. For the Malaysians that studied in English they are still very patriotic to Malaysia plus they have the advantage of speaking and writing in excellent English much to the astonishment of others. I remember when initially pursuing my studies in the US, the university made me sit for an English exam. Despite arriving the previous day and having a cold and cough I completed the test and scored 1495 out of 1500 points. I asked where I lost the 5 points and they pointed out I spelled color and labor wrong. I showed them my dictionary with the spelling in both version and they gave me my 5 points.
    They had envisioned that I had come from an non English speaking country and was wondering how come I speak fluent English. Funny thing though when I showed them the School certificate with the University of Cambridge prominently printed at the top, they asked did I study at Cambridge, chuckle chuckle.

  7. Small nations with progressive values and strong social democratic political parties such as Finland and Sweden have shown us how already.

    Their populations are small but they are world class in terms of science and technology. They maintain their national languages while being excellent in English.
    Their universities also rank at respectable levels.

    And I would like to point out to our racial supremacist UMNO Baru-BN regime that the Finns show respect to their Swedish-speaking minority by having all their road
    signs in both Finnish and Swedish. And in the Aland Islands where Finnish citizens of Swedish descent are in the majority, they enjoy a high degree of political autonomy.

  8. If you look at the Blueprint – all it does is ape some of the technicalities that has already been done for a long time in countries such as Korea, Japan and Singapore.

    What the Blueprint really lacks is simply leadership because the person in charge simply is unsuited especially given how traditionally political he is. When you are talking about a blueprint, its really about digging deep into very nature of the challenge of education and training, of human resource development – its not about exploitation, opportunism and politics. So long as you don’t get it, how difficult it is, then you are not capable of moving the solution significantly..

    All these technicalities comes from countries where the people involved in the country and education have long have ideas of the challenges of human resource development and have always placed high importance even if they did not always do the right things. Like it or not, UMNO never has and still don’t get it.

  9. Phua,
    They do have university courses in english. They are not puritanical over their mother tongue. In any case, I am afraid to say LKY assertion is right. English is chosen because it’s such a neutral language which gives no advantage to anybody. Singapore got 4 official languages but keep the working language in english. Mind you Sabah & Sarawak still keep english as working language in their legislative assembly. As for the religion, it’s really clear colonisation by Malaya by having a state religion

  10. This is for the pleasures of many including Ibnu

    Take note of the second latin phrases mentioned by Sir Humphery Appleby. Perhaps……You can make up your deduction

  11. “But whatever decisions Malaysia may take in the near future, the fact is that the world is not about to slow down for Malaysia to catch up.” But that is exactly what the government has been telling the Malays – to demand that the Chinese to slow down so that the Malays can catch up. Now after more than 40 years of NEP forcing the Chinese to slow down, by taking away university places from them to give to the Malays, by making it difficult for Chinese to do business, by making sure that the Malays monopolise the civil service, police, arm forces, GLCs, all major transport companies (sea, land and air), etc., the Chinese must still slow down for them. How long more do these shameless people want this to go on?

  12. Dato
    In the 60s and early 70s our education system was world class. So was the other institutions ie civil service, judiciary, police. Today after seeing the fall in quality in almost all the government machinery due to the failure of the education system ( emphasis on Malay needs rather than national needs) and the myopic attitude of political masters of wanting to marginalize the importance of English language, we are reinventing the wheel trying to repair the horrendous and costly damage incurred by past policies and its failures. The government is still not fully committed to the importance of having a strong command of English to bring the country back to its past glory. We have lost decades of selfish political decisions and I doubt whether attempts to make it right will succeed. Now we have so many obstacles ahead – lack of teachers to teach English, indiscipline in schools, doing away with feeder schools for admission into the premier schools. For a start the passing of English must be made mandatory for all levels. Bring back English literature, composition and comprehension, elocution contest at primary and secondary school and allow certain subjects to be taught in English,
    There is no political will within UMNO to rectify the damage. So will this be another hoodwink exercise of the highest hypocricy?

  13. Are our ‘leaders’ serious about educating Malaysian children? We have blueprints and whatnot, and yet the result is we are still wallowing in the mud pit dug by UMNO. Look at Hong Kong, a tiny place in southern Chuna. It can boast of having educated one Nobel laureate and having had another to run its universities. Taiwan has also produced REAL world class scholars. Singapore, perhaps because of its feudal schooling system, has yet to see similar result. In BolehLand, UMNO Baru leaders and their underlings dare to claim anything close to world class. LOL.

  14. Hilmi……..I agree with you what you have written and you have said it all about our time back to early 60s and 70s. Education policies must not be diluted with politics if we are to attain a world class standard .

  15. I am struck by the inconsistencies in Dr. Farish Noor’s article. He hints at the problem without having the courage to state it openly. The Malaysian University system needs more English fluency – agreed. He makes that point even if with a great deal of polite circumlocution.

    But then he notes that the Indonesian University system is ‘lively ‘, ‘large, progressive’, ‘well-appointed’ ‘exceptional’… all this while teaching in Bahasa Indonesia! Granted, they recognise the need to move more to English and are starting to do so but even now there is independent thought, debate… so the problem in Malaysian universities is highlighted in contrast: they are hobbled by a politically imposed system that wants to tell the Malaysian students what they are allowed to think! That is the difference with Indonesia.

    More English won’t help much if independent thought is suffocated. How are the academic appointments made? Dr. Farish seems reluctant to tread on those delicate flower beds…
    Mr. Anderson,

    Dr Farish has to play along in order to a message. Otherwise, The New Straits Times won’t carry his article. Language is just the medium of instruction. The use of Malay is not a problem, although I think it is a mistake not to learn English and other languages. It is the quality of our curriculum and professors, and political interference. What is important to me at least is that graduates from Malaysian universities must be able to think critically, value lifelong learning, and be equipped with basic values to begin the journey of life. Our authorities must go back to answering the basic question: what is the purpose of a university education. My professors taught me to a decent and humble human being so that I can stay rooted in reality and look at God’s universe in wonderment.–Din Merican

  16. Please do not laugh at me, as I am ignorant about the Psychology relating to Education policy contained in the blueprint hashed out by half-baked politicians who are trying to hold back others of the new generation, just so that they can do ‘ the catch up ‘ for all the things they lack in themselves.
    Don’t laugh because I am going to suggest the dual ( or dwi-bahasa) national language to be a kind of trial for one decade : both English and BM to be the official National languages ‘ jointly ‘ if there’s such thing ? The reason is I am quite taken up by what I read somewhere, something novel : ” English is a neutral language ” which caught my imagination…..huh ! Neutral > what’s is that ? It then dawned on me that not only English is the International language, it HAS become so because of the vast amount of Scientific vocabulary that has been built up exceeding 500 years in terms of Advantage ( not easy to catch up to build the Vocabulary in Bahasa ).
    Yes ‘ Neutral ” I suppose because it cannot be resisted and it will be Voluntarily ‘ accepted ‘ by every body naturally – not coerced or forced.
    The only qualification I foresee is this, on the implications of Dwi-bahasa , or its Effect : Will it eventually make BM the ‘ rojak language ‘ , or the other way round, English might become the localised ‘ rojak language ‘ ? Which ?
    We have clear examples : Pisikology, Skuacy, Sketsa….many more… they ‘ sound ‘ right or awfull, I am not sure…….
    Please do not laugh or scoff at my suggestion, can we not try & then make necessary ‘ suitable ‘ adjustments over the decade ?

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